Friday, November 25, 2016
Director: Andrew Stanton
Writers: Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Jim Reardon
Production design: Ralph Eggleston
Art direction: Bert Berry
Music: Thomas Newman
Editor: Stephen Schaffer
Cast: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Fred Willard, Jeff Garlin, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver, Kim Kopf, Garrett Palmer
As I got ready to look at WALL-E again for the first time practically since it was new, I was overwhelmed by an unfamiliar feeling: nostalgia for the era of Barack Obama. Strictly speaking, of course, the Obama era is not over quite yet. And, for that matter, released on June 27, 2008, the movie isn't even technically of the Obama era anyway. But the spirit is there, the sense we can come together, acknowledge and address our common problems, and solve them, however illusory or delusional that may now appear to be. The sense that the problems we have brought on ourselves are ridiculous and should be resolved immediately because they can be.
The reason for my reaction is obvious. In fact, the Obama era is ending, and we appear to be embarking on a period that's going to make Bush/Cheney look like a Sunday ride to the hounds. WALL-E, an animated cartoon movie rated G ("nothing that would offend parents for viewing by children"), operates from the premise that our unsustainable lifestyle has finally caught up with us as a species. Earth is no longer habitable—plant life is extinct, only adorable cockroaches are left, and the surface is piled high with trash. Human beings have been hurled into space on a five-year luxury cruise (with corporate sponsorship from the ubiquitous BNL, or Buy 'n' Large) while robots are left behind to clean up the mess and monitor for signs of returning life. In other words, it's a neoliberal nightmare.
WALL-E has much to recommend it besides its premise, of course. It's also a cunningly constructed movie, like much of the Pixar canon. WALL-E is a movie made out of sound which mostly follows the conventions of a silent movie. It's a silent movie in the way Chaplin's Modern Times is silent—with music and sound effects but with an absolute minimum of dialogue, though language is heard and not infrequently. For example, the robots mimic some human speech, and engage in rudimentary dialogue. Our hero, the Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class (WALL-E) robot, says "whoa" a lot. I flipped on the subtitles and found many more intended words than I had made out the first time. Later in the movie we see how things are going with human beings on the luxury spaceship and hear more dialogue then.
As a work of sound design, it's charming, apt, and remarkable, perhaps the movie's single greatest feature. Ben Burtt is listed as a cast member because he created all the expressive aspects of the robots, using his own voice, audio production of others, and sound effects. He is actually responsible for everything we hear (as director and cowriter Andrew Stanton is responsible for setting him loose to do it)—if not literally every voice, then the tone and quality of every voice and sound, which are fitted carefully into a syntax of gears-and-bolts artificial intelligence machinery and other ambient noise. At the same time, the sound design also provides wonderful cartoon textures at every point. It's a comedy by definition, and family friendly remember, so it's full of pratfalls, slapstick, bad jokes, and blackout bits at transitions.
Among other things, the audience-pleasing also means a love story between two robots, which undercuts the serious themes as that is patently ridiculous. But that's the story, and in fairness the anthropomorphizing starts at the top, as we learn WALL-E loves music, especially show tunes. So that's how it rolls. Yet WALL-E is so good in so many ways that the only recourse is to surrender to the commercial G-rating conceits and take it for what it is. Which amounts to quite a bit. Critics consider it the best Pixar movie by a fair sight, the only one presently in the top 50 of the 21st-century list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? (at #22). I might like Ratatouille a little more, because I think it's funnier, but that's just another highlight in the animation studio's amazing run of the 2000s.
There are numerous points of plausibility problems in this movie, I should probably mention. The longevity of the space mission is a big one. But remember, the picture starts with a scene of WALL-E enjoying show music, a kind of warning up-front that this is your last chance to suspend disbelief. And if the fantasy aspects frequently override and obscure the more serious themes, well, you do what you have to do in commercial America. Ranked #1 for lifetime grosses at Box Office Mojo in the Animation - Sci-Fi category (ahead of Big Hero 6, whatever that is) and #2 in the Environmentalist category (behind Avatar), and with a place in the top 200 all-time, WALL-E pretty much took care of business on multiple levels.
In the end, I've been feeling bad that our country and world seem poised to take the direction of the humans in WALL-E after all—grotesquely obese, manifestly stupid and lazy, satisfied to be waited on by machines. This seemed like a movie that suggested better scenarios were possible (and desirable) (and necessary), another calling card of the Obama era. But I understand it didn't help the white people in Michigan and Pennsylvania enough. Tonight, to me, things look dim for this moldering old planet we are gnawing like termites. The plan appears to be whooping it up as long as we can, then probably a glorious war approximately 2019—perhaps Afghanistan, once and for all, with no targets to bomb, why not nuke?—effectively adding more layers of the trash and heat we are suffocating in. That's where WALL-E has brought me tonight—nothing against it. It's a pretty good show.